The vast majority of low-income residents in Woodlawn and other communities near the Obama Presidential Center site can’t afford their current rents nor can they afford the rising rents of newly built or renovated units, according to a study released Thursday by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
There have long been fears that the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) will spark investment that could, ultimately, price many current residents out of the neighborhood.
For some, the UIC study confirms something they’ve already known — that the displacement process is already underway.
“This report is just gravy on the potatoes,” said Ald. Jeanette Taylor, 20th Ward. “This is our lived experience. We already know that the displacement is happening. So this report … just goes along with what we’ve been saying for three years.”
Taylor, community activists and others spoke during a Thursday morning press conference to announce the report’s findings.
The UIC study, conducted by researchers at the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, covers the area within two miles of the OPC site, which lies in Jackson Park on the city’s South Side.
“While rents vary, there is clear evidence of rising rents in newly renovated and new construction units, which the majority of current renters cannot afford,” the report states.
However, the problem isn’t just in the rising costs of new units. The report highlights that existing rents are already unaffordable for the vast majority of low-income residents in the study area.
The report authors considered rent “unaffordable” for households where the cost of rent exceeded 30% of household income.
More than 87% of households in the study area earning less than $35,000 a year were spending more than 30% of household income to cover rent, according to a WBEZ analysis of data included in the report. That figure was just 20% for households in the study area earning $35,000 or more.
Community activists have remained steadfast in their battle to get protections for low-income Woodlawn residents codified in a community benefits agreement. While that agreement has not yet materialized, the movement has gained momentum.
Taylor and Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th Ward, introduced an ordinance in July that would secure a dedicated amount of affordable housing among new units and freeze property taxes for some in the area along with other protections. Taylor said she was set to discuss the ordinance with the city’s corporation counsel later on Thursday.
Activists also mentioned that they would lead the chair of the Chicago City Council’s housing committee — Ald. Harry Osterman, 48th Ward — on a tour of the neighborhood on Monday.
“So we’re seeing headway. I think this report just underscores that there’s a greater urgency to move quicker,” said Alex Goldenberg, director of Southside Together Organizing for Power.
Neither the office of Mayor Lori LIghtfoot nor the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit spearheading the OPC’s development, have committed their support for the ordinance proposed by Taylor and Hairston. But they’ve remained in dialogue with those who support the measure.
“Mayor Lightfoot has been clear in her commitment to working with a broad range of stakeholders, including community leaders as well as her colleagues in the City Council, to ensure all voices are heard as the new Obama Presidential Center moves forward,” spokesperson Anel Ruiz wrote in an emailed statement Thursday.
“To address the community’s unresolved concerns related to the project, the Lightfoot administration has begun hosting a series of community forums to help gain broader input on the project, including developing a community-based framework that will create and maintain affordable housing and economic development opportunities for the community,” her statement continued.
The Obama Foundation applauded Lightfoot, aldermen and community organizers for their efforts. “We want our neighbors who have called this community home for decades to be able to continue to live on the South Side as long as they wish,” a foundation spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday.
The OPC must gain federal approval before construction can begin. Construction is expected to take about 18 months to complete.